Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Brief Interlude

I leave today for nearly a month's stay at Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram established by British monk Bede Griffiths which has become, since his death in 1973, a place of pilgrimage for spiritual seekers from around the world. I leave with somewhat less enthusiasm than I had for my previous three trips to India because I have begun to sink down roots in Bangkok after four months in residency here and I will miss this infinitely fascinating city and the new friends I have made.

Last night on the just discovered roof of Siam Court, the 15-story building in which I rent an apartment, I watched a spectacular fireworks show over Benjakiti Park, part of the week-long celebrations to honor the 80th birthday of His Majesty the King. It was the fourth fireworks display I'd seen in the last five days and I'm becoming something of a connoisseur. This time they even managed to send the numbers "80" high into the sky over the Sukhumvit cityscape. Earlier in the evening, Chris, the building's manager, had organized a Christmas party around the pool, with a buffet groaning under the weight of innumerable Thai and Farang dishes, including a variety of barbecued meats (the beef was perfection), and seasonal songs on the PA system. Many of the residents here are foreigners, like the fellows I met last night from Northern Ireland and New Zealand, but by no means most. Lots of Thai kids live here and they "oohed" and "aahed" at the fireworks like children (and adults) the world over. I rememered fireworks displays in the past, like the 4th of Julys in Capitola when we lay back on the sand to watch the brilliant lights over the pier. We cheered and applauded the best, just like the Thais here. Maybe fireworks are more universal than religion.

Yesterday was also the opening of Siam Court's new gym. Work has been proceeding on the facility since I arrived in August. While it's small, with only a few machines and weights, there is also a table and chairs on a balcony overlooking the garden next door, the perfect place to drink a morning coffee and watch the fanatics sweat. No, I take that back. No one could use a little exercise more than me. My middle-aged spread is threatening to become a tsunami. After a month of doing nothing in India, my body will be ready for a rigorous regime on the tredmill and the stationary cycle, not to mention a few crunches with the arm weights. Right? Walking has not done the trick, and it too often reminds me that arthritis is a matter of the feet as well as the hands. So, I will make a New Year's resolution (yeah, right) to get in shape.

On Friday the new Christmas fantasy film, "The Golden Compass," opened in Bangkok as well as around the world. I've enjoyed reading about the controversy surrounded Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, from which the film is adapted. According to William A. Donohue, president of the laughably conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who also complained about “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” should be boycotted because it is the beginning of a “stealth campaign” to introduce children to atheism. Admitting that he hadn’t actually seen the movie, Donohue nevertheless claimed he didn’t need to. The problem, as he sees it, is that the “film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may feel impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present.” For an insightful counter to the complaints that "Compass" is an atheist Narnia, take a look at "The Accidental Heretic" by Donna Freitas, author with Jason King of Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials. A faithful Catholic, Freitas also thinks that Pullman's series is a masterpiece. I hope I can find a copy of the first book in the series at the airport bookstore today. The film, however, is a mess. Despite great effects, beautiful photography, and Nicole Kidder's glamorous villain, the plot bogs down in confusing detail, explained no doubt more clearly in the book. Apparently Pullman's critique of authoritarian religion is also toned down so as not to offend the kiddies and idiots like Donohue. Too bad. Perhaps this proves the point he makes in the series about gods and religious authority.

The news on the TV from America while I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant the other morning was dismal. Another shooting by a depressed young man in a shopping mall. A diner sitting next to me identified himself as a Canadian and asked: "why does this happen in America?" He said there were more guns in Canada but that Canadians do not slaughter innocent people with the frequency of mass murderers in the U.S. I couldn't answer him. I recalled multiple shootings in Scotland and Finland. Is America the mass murder center of the world? Maybe we have more depressed people? I'm not sure I think much about "we" any more. The flap in the news over the CIA destroying evidence undoubtedly obtained through supposedly-illegal torture might rouse a few Americans from their torpor, but I doubt it. Perhaps America should be quarantined from the rest of the world. There is a strange virus on the rampage there, from Washington to San Diego, and if something isn't done soon it will spread everywhere like bird flu and infect the innocent.

A friend from Santa Cruz writes that "it sounds like you'll be staying over there for quite a while. Thailand has become home? Have you emigrated?" I replied that I still hadn't decided yet if this is an emigration. I'll return to Thailand in January, and spend at least another five months here and elsewhere in Asia before going to Europe in the summer. I have a return ticket to San Francisco which I may not use. I explained further that I've always "been a 'homebody' (a characteristic of Cancers, so I've been told). But when my marriage ended, I had to redefine myself. I settled into a couple of places, but really felt more comfortable living out of a suitcase during my travels. Now I have a tiny studio apartment and my only furnishing is a Buddha icon (besides the bare necessities included in the rent). I have no desire to 'nest' any more. Aren't we all homeless anyway, and holding onto a place is just a recipe for suffering?"

So goodbye to Bangkok for now. Farewell to Little Bang, my sangha away from home (wherever home might be), and to Pandit and Dr. Holly and the other friends I've made here. Enjoy your no-longer-alone wintery holiday season in Seoul, Marcus. See you in the new year, Jerry. And goodbye my lovely guide and translator, my "secret lover." I will take you with me in my heart and come back to you soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all. And here is a selection of recent photographs that have not found a home in my blog.

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